Existential questioning at a young age and the suffering that often accompanies it was a predominant theme among those I interviewed: “I would look up at the stars and ask, ‘Why am I here?’” “I was always searching, searching, searching.” “I felt something was really missing.” “Always in the back of my mind I was thinking, there must be something more.” “Everything seemed empty.”
When these young people discovered meditation and the Hindu philosophy that accompanies its practice, they felt they had found purpose to their lives. Their newfound path seems to have satisfied their need to know their ultimate purpose. There was often a struggle with the religion in which they were raised in order to make the transition to a new one. Once the transition was made, they felt they had a belief system that made more sense than the one that had left them unsatisfied. The practice of meditation gave them a method for finding stillness and stability in the midst of a troubled world. Their belief in the supernormal state of the guru gave them an anchor to hold them steady and a hope that some day they would no longer be affected by their particular angst and suffering. Gathering with other devotees gave them a community that understood their longing and supported them on the path.
The spiritual practices, beliefs, and community gave them a new worldview, or a new “meaning system.” The sociologist William Sims Bainbridge defines this phrase as “an orientation to the world so global that it encompasses both ultimate values and basic beliefs.”1 The meaning system of HIMMs must be distinguished from the norms that are prescribed by particular HIMMs. The meaning system is general and overarching; norms, as they have been conceptualized by sociologists since the mid-twentieth century, are specific prescriptions for the proper behavior to be followed in particular situations.2 The guru and organization of each HIMM has specific prescriptions for its participants, which they take great care to preserve. The preservation process is referred to as “protecting the purity of the teachings.”